The States Rights Fallacy

For literally decades I’ve had to correct people on this particular bit of terminology. (More recently, I blogged about this in 2014 concerning “The Cliven Bundy Case.”)

I am hearing a lot of talk lately about “states rights.” States don’t have rights. People do. The most important of those rights are those the state is obliged to protect, for example the right of the people to peaceably gather and freely express their opinions, for example opposition to government policy. 

States have powers, not rights. In the United States, a constitutional republic, we have a system of authority that delegates or grants states powers in several areas, while keeping states subordinate to the federal government under the authority of the United States Constitution (the Supremacy Clause). This is why we call our country the “United States”—the states are united under one authority that operates on the principle of federalism.

I appreciate the fact that President Trump understands this relationship. He’s leaving a lot of decisions to states concerning when they’re going to reopen. At the same time he asserts his authority to step in if states badly handle reopening. 

The media treats this as if it’s a contradiction. But they don’t understand our system. It is in fact the essence of the United States of America to allow states (and local governments) to make decisions relative to the circumstances of their citizens and residents, not just administratively, but also substantively, while ultimately being answerable to the national government. 

States are ultimately answerable to the national government because the citizens of each state are first and foremost citizens of the United States. This is why President Eisenhower could federalize the National Guard and command them in Little Rock (see also Article I, Section 8). Moreover, anybody who’s in the country is ultimately under the authority of the national government.

This is the reason I find sanctuary cities and sanctuary states to be such a deeply troubling development, especially in light of the fact that it’s the national government that is in charge of immigration and borders.

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Andrew Austin

Andrew Austin is on the faculty of Democracy and Justice Studies and Sociology at the University of Wisconsin—Green Bay. He has published numerous articles, essays, and reviews in books, encyclopedia, journals, and newspapers.

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